'I'd give it a 10'
So much makes a classroom great, the principals and teachers — but especially students like North Marion Primary School first-grader Valeria Guijosa, who helps her peers when they're struggling with an assignment.
"They need someone expert to help them," Valeria jokes and then looks serious again for a moment. "Was that too much? Tell me if it was too much."
Valeria's teacher, Joshua Mitchell, encourages her leadership, and anyone can see that class runs more smoothly because she is allowed to help out. She quickly finishes her own work and then rushing from one student to the next while he works the other side of the classroom. That's what a North Marion classroom is about, instilling not only the standard academic lessons, but also offering opportunities for leadership, teamwork, and care and connection.
"Being in class is a game changer because kids are being provided with the opportunity to learn from both the teacher and from their peers," Mitchell says. "We recognize that parents are equipped to teach their children; however, as a parent myself, I recognize that my kids won't always choose to listen to me. So having another voice or voices speaking into each and every student's life is necessary to make students grow."
This fall, these supportive classroom environments have been particularly crucial. Many students have struggled to adapt to the in-person lessons they have craved. That's likely because they lacked access to experts like Valeria and hands-on learning opportunities — including constructing a paper spider.
This past October, Mitchell encouraged students to learn to read and follow instructions by crafting an arachnid. The first graders had all invested hours studying spiders and then tried their hand at an exercise in creating a creepy creature out of paper and yarn, following Mitchell's step-by-step process.
Valeria says that the spider-building workshop was one of her favorite classes and that Mitchell is a terrific teacher.
"He always says, 'Try your best,'" she explains. What else does she enjoy about Mitchell? "He's funny. Yeah, he's funny," she says.
First-grader Ben Preston Martinez felt similarly about Mitchell's class. He shrugged and considered it, thoughtfully.
"If I had to give it a 1-to-10 [rating], I'd give it a 10," Ben explains. "I really like his class. It's perfect. There's so many books."
Ben pointed, illustratively, to several low shelves, heavily laden with children's books, and turned his eyes to Mitchell.
"He's pretty nice," Ben says. "He helps people."
That one-on-one help from teachers like Mitchell has been valuable for the newly returned students. It also helps that there is a plethora of ways to learn in a real-world environment, such as building spiders or even enjoying a breath of fresh air.
"He takes us outside," first-grader Soraya Domingues notes, listing it as what she likes most about Mitchell.
Mitchell explains that those strolls that she treasures are simply part of a regular school day.
"We go to different locations," he explains. "For her, it's a journey, but for me, it's simply going where our responsibilities lie, taking them to lunch or taking them to recess."
The year has only just begun, and Mitchell's students have already grown so much, with the help of their teacher and surrounded by helpful friends like Valeria, Ben, and Soraya. These students aren't just learning on their own, alone in a room. They're a part of a learner's spider web where they can grow and connect with each other, and their teacher, in real life (IRL), with hands-on projects and leg stretching activities.
"My primary goal for this year, beyond education, is to provide opportunities for the students to collaborate and problem solve together: COVID robbed them of this opportunity," Mitchell says. "So, this is going to be our priority, and I can already see them taking risks in problem solving on their own, showing responsibility and leadership when working with others, and using empathy to encourage others to succeed."
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